Mr. Beaks Presents His Top 100 Films Of The Decade! At Last, The Final Twenty-Five!
Published at: July 5, 2010, 1:25 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
A word on the final twenty-five: once again, whenever possible, I have relied on previously-published reviews so long as I haven't done a complete 180 on the film in the interim (which is why I'm ignoring everything I wrote initially about film number fifteen). As for the length of each capsule, some films require more strenuous defenses than others. And some are so inarguably great, what more needs to be said? Finally, if any of this reads like I'm experiencing capsule fatigue, that's because I am.
The "Just Missed" list, and the complete 1 - 100 are below.
Part One is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here. Part four is now.
25. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005, d. David Cronenberg, w. Josh Olson)
Just a nude bathhouse brawl away from hitting the Top Ten. From my Best of 2005 list for Collider: "Is there a filmmaker alive more qualified to delve into this picture’s titular subject than David Cronenberg? And was any film more open to interpretation than this thematically ambiguous exploration of man’s dormant capacity to kill, what it takes to awaken this inclination, and how far he’ll go to protect that which is threatened by his violent acting out? It’s the way Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson’s story twists that makes it such a fascinating and perverse study. Midway through the film, Tom Stahl (Viggo Mortensen), having piled up an impressive body count in two violent encounters, goes primal and practically rapes his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), on an unforgiving flight of wooden stairs. That scene seems to be the bye-bye point for most audiences, but it launches the film into highly provocative waters; is Tom the victim of moral decay, or is he really a monster? And, if so, is every man a monster at his core? Cronenberg offers no answers."
24. THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (2001, w. & d. Joel and Ethan Coen)
With the great Roger Deakins going full-noir with his sumptuous black-and-white cinematography, this could've been a shot-for-shot remake of HARDLY WORKING for all I care. Thankfully, it's a little more substantive than that - though it does get awfully wacky in its own way. Joel and Ethan Coen return to the duplicitous world of James M. Cain for the sad tale of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a small-town, small-time barber who gets enmeshed in a blackmail plot that very slowly leads to his demise. The narrative drifts along at a pleasingly dreamlike pace (set by Carter Burwell's "Pathetique"-inspired score), which both revels in and ridicules our parents'/grandparents' tranquil memories of post-WWII America. Lots of awful events transpire in this Coen-classic, but it's all so serene and beautiful that you don't much mind. Simpler times, simpler transgressions. People really smoked back then.
23. MONSTERS, INC. (2001, d. Pete Docter, w. Andrew Stanton, Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Rhett Reese and Jonathan Roberts)
Pixar made the mistake of following up their greatest achievement (TOY STORY 2), with their second second greatest achievement, and the nearly-imperceptible fraction of a drop in quality cost them the first-ever Academy Award for Best Feature Animation. Eight years later, MONSTERS, INC. is still an all-timer, while SHREK is a dated, wasn't-funny-in-the-first-place parade of pop-culture references. It gets old praising the storytelling dexterity and visual invention of the Emeryville Gang, but it's all there and it's just a little more wonderful and uplifting than usual. The central relationship between big blue Sulley (John Goodman) and the not-quite-articulate "Boo" (voiced by a then three-year-old Mary Gibbs) is the most shamelessly effective heart-melter in the Pixar canon, while the clever alternative energy message is up-front without being insistent. Everything works in this one.
22. FEMME FATALE (2002, w. & d. Brian De Palma)
From my 2002 AICN review: "Falling under the spell of movies is at the heart of FEMME FATALE just as it’s always been lurking at the (some would say, to belabor the Stanwyck-ian symmetry, 'rotten') core of every film De Palma has ever made, only now it’s the blatantly expressed focal point. No longer content to engage in simple homage, De Palma has instead applied a Pirandellian conceit and crafted an existential lark that amplifies the obligatory elements of the Noir genre and revels in them with a naughty, unabashed glee that unfolds in almost strictly visual terms. It’s as daringly headlong a leap into formalism as the director has ever taken, but unlike RAISING CAIN, which came at the audience like a traditional thriller only to devolve into a grandly staged, yet narcissistic song of praise to the director’s own greatness, FEMME FATALE at least makes an effort to inform the viewer that they are in for a postmodern pisser of a film.
Brian De Palma, now well into his sixties, has not only returned to form, but evolved into a more daring filmmaker than I’d ever imagined possible. By conceiving a clever, postmodern antidote to the staleness of the modern-day thriller in which the cold-hearted heroine is able to glimpse her future and enact a change that is in equal parts benevolent and self-serving, he’s, rather amazingly, made his most adventuresome picture since PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, and crafted a genre demolishing masterpiece that stands as one of the proudest moments of his career."
21. SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (2000, w. & d. Roy Andersson)
A bleak and surreal vision of society in decline, Roy Andersson's SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR languished for two years without U.S. distribution before being quietly dumped to DVD. This was no way to treat one of the decade's most visually arresting films - which I've often described as Jacques Tati's PURGATORY. But that doesn't quite cover it. Nothing, not even a 3,000 word essay (which I wrote and joyously lost to a computer crash years ago), could completely cover the bizarre enormity of Andersson's episodic achievement. (I once heard someone say it's like listening to August Strindberg trying to tell a joke.) The film moves from one vignette to another, each depicting some form of misery with droll humor. Andersson packs his frame with such detail that you could examine them for days - though the DVD I watched does his compositions a grainy disservice. Again, I beesech thee, Criterion.
20. SPIRITED AWAY (2001, w. & d. Hayao Miyazaki)
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE contains several of my all-time favorite Miyazaki set pieces, but this is the world's greatest living animator at his magical best. The journey of Chihiro, a moody young girl none-too-pleased with the idea of moving to a new town with her parents, is one of constant surprise and enchantment. Though Miyazaki is working from a vaguely familiar template (the hook is that mixture of horror and elation a child feels at being separated from their parents), the story glides along at its own, unhurried pace, and is far more interested at making emotional sense than adhering to any kind of rigid psychological interpretation. Perhaps there exists a decoder for this and many other Miyazaki films; if so, keep it the hell away from me. When he's cooking, Miyazaki is like a family-friendly Jodorowsky; it feels like he's dreaming for you.
19. WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? (2001, w. & d. Tsai Ming-liang)
The best work this decade from one of the world's most uniquely gifted directors. From my 2001 AICN review: "The film opens with a typically static opening shot of an old man (Miao Tien) just sitting down for dinner. Rather than begin eating, though, he lights a cigarette and wanders about his house looking for, we presume, a dinner companion. Unable to find anyone, he proceeds to step outside and smoke by himself while his dinner goes cold and uneaten. In the intervening moments between this shot and the next, the old man will be dead, leaving behind a grief-stricken wife (Lu Yi-Ching), and a seemingly emotionless son, Hsiao Kang (played by the star of all of Ming Liang’s films, Lee Kang-sheng), who spends his days on the streets hawking watches out of a suitcase; a vocation that brings him into contact with a pretty young girl (Chen Shiang-Chyi) who, unimpressed with his selection, pesters him for the very watch on his wrist. After a day, he relents, and is rewarded with a cake for his trouble; however, their relationship is to end there, as she is off to Paris that very same day. That night, Hsiao, seeking refuge from his mother’s desperate adherence to traditional rituals designed to bring about his father’s reincarnation, works out the time difference between Taiwan and France, and proceeds to first set all of his watches to Paris time, followed by every watch and clock in the entire city.
Ming-Liang has said that the genesis of this project was the suicide of Lee Kang-sheng’s father, the sheer tragedy of which forced the director to reflect upon his own father’s passing some eight years prior; thus, lending the film a persistently mournful undercurrent that leaves an indelible impact on the viewer. Ming-Liang’s most audacious gambit, however, is his use of Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS as a sort of guiding spirit hanging over the film, linking Hsiao and Chen in an irresistibly cinematic manner. That is, until the film’s final moments at the Tuileries gardens, where the surprise appearance of the film’s second “angel”, followed by a haunting rendition of the main theme from Truffaut’s original masterpiece over the closing credits, makes the reference work in a bizarre, but ineffable manner.
18. DOGVILLE (2003, w. & d. Lars von Trier)
That irrepressible humanist Lars von Trier is at it again: this time, he eschews his Dogme pretensions and opts for Brechtian artifice to tell the Depression-era tale of a community coming together in a most delightful way. Von Trier loses about eighty percent of his audience by staging his film on a selectively-unadorned stage with chalk outlines; he loses the rest when he informs them that, deep down, they're rotten human beings. Von Trier continues to get blasted, by people who haven't seen his movies, as anti-American. This couldn't be further from the truth. As he recently proved with the cock-bludgeoningly crazy ANTI-CHRIST, it's not Americans he's a distaste for; it's human beings.
All joking aside, DOGVILLE represents von Trier's finest hour as a filmmaker. A tremendous script brought to contentious life by a cast which includes John Hurt, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, Chloe Sevigny and Stellan Skarsgard. Even if you don't have the stomach for what von Trier is saying, this is a superbly crafted film through and through.
17. THE NEW WORLD (2005, w. & d. Terrence Malick)
From my Best of 2005 list for Collider: "Terrence Malick recovers from his inscrutable, nature-obsessed adaptation of James Jones’s quite human THE THIN RED LINE with a meditation on the irresistible force of manmade progress. Whereas the philosophical inquest of his previous film fit uneasily with his gruntish dramatis personae, the florid musings of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and John Rolfe flow organically out of the picture’s otherworldly tone. James Horner’s score is, once again, a collection of tired cues from prior works (this time it’s FIELD OF DREAMS, BRAVEHEART and STAR TREK II), but Malick atones for the sins of his composer with some evocative selections from Mozart and, most triumphantly, Wagner). The film feels as if it could do with some tightening, but there’s something right about this first cut’s wildness. I hope it isn’t scrapped entirely."
Malick's cut is wonderful (and it sure would be nice to see it screened somewhere). No film this decade has aged more gracefully. I'm even coming around on THE THIN RED LINE.
16. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004, d. Michel Gondry, w. Charlie Kaufman)
From my 2004 interview with Michel Gondry: "It’s a movie that will probably live and die on one’s personal connection to the material. Fortunately, that shouldn’t be a problem, since this film is about falling in love and maintaining a relationship even after both parties have discovered ample reasons to resent each other. Cheery stuff, right? Maybe not, but in the hands of maestro Michel Gondry, it’s a visually audacious trip through the emotional minefield of modern romance that’s impossible to shake. With one film, Gondry has moved far past his previous misstep, HUMAN NATURE, and made his peace with the peculiar universe of Charlie Kaufman."
I know they didn't enjoy the most harmonious collaboration, but these two can't reunite soon enough: Gondry's childlike wonder is an ideal match for Kaufman's unremitting gloom. Together, they hooked into something startlingly true and created the most resonant love story of their generation. The potential for creative conflict is absolutely worth the possibility of transcendence.
15. A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001, w. & d. Steven Spielberg)
Dating back to the 1980s, A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE was the Stanley Kubrick film nearly everyone wanted. Based to a then unknown extent on Brian Aldiss's "Supertoys Last All Summer Long", it was to be the maestro's return to science-fiction, the genre he redefined with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. In so many imaginations, it was to be the next giant leap... somewhere. Technically, artistically, intellectually... only Kubrick knew. So when he announced during the mid-'90s that his next project would be some psychosexual drama about marriage derived from the work of Arthur Schnitzler, there was a good deal of disappointment. Given Kubrick's age, and the glacial clip at which he worked, the clock was ticking on this much-anticipated film. And then, on March 7, 1999, the clock ran out.
When Steven Spielberg announced that he would honor his "good friend Stanley" by shooting A.I. to the deceased filmmaker's exacting specifications, skepticism was abundant. No matter how fervently (and, perhaps, opportunistically) Spielberg played up their fax-machine camaraderie, he seemed an ill-fit for what many just assumed would be Kubrick's pessimistic take on Pinocchio. Their worst fears were realized when Spielberg tacked on a happy ending in which David, the robot boy desperate to know maternal love, gets his wish granted by benevolent mecha from the distant future. Kubrick's final project, the one we'd craved for decades, had been Brundleflied into a pus-spewing mutation of hope and cynicism. It was hideous - a crime worse than a thousand HOOKs.
Except, when you think about it, the ending ain't all that happy. David's wish is to be a real boy to the real mother who, not for nothing, abandoned him in the woods when he got psychotically intense about pleasing her. But, due to a flaw (or a carelessness) in his programming, he has imprinted on this woman, and won't be satisfied until he's with her forever and ever. And then, when he's rescued by the mechas and given his twenty-four-hour romp with a genetic approximation of his "mother", the whole reunion is rather creepy and Oedipal. And then the mechas just switch him off for good - much to the horror of his loyal supertoy sidekick, Teddy (who, in the film's sad final image, falls back on the bed in despair).
I know Spielberg claims the ending of A.I. is indeed a happy one, but a careful reading of the film reveals it to be the through-the-looking-glass subversion of his popular escapist fantasies. Notice how he puts a sinister spin on familiar visual tropes like the moon from E.T., the aliens from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (which the mechas resemble), the driver's-side mirror gag from JURASSIC PARK (as David's mother leaves him for dead)... hell, even the submerged ferris wheel from 1941 makes a rusted-out appearance. This is Steven Spielberg on the other side of middle-age, and he's telling us (consciously or subconsciously) that the view is bleak, getting bleaker.
This was Kubrick's final masterstroke: he dragged Peter Pan out of Neverland.
(Misses the top ten thanks to Robin Williams and Chris Rock, who briefly put me in the mind of HEARTBEEPS.)
14. PRIMER (2004, w. & d. Shane Carruth)
If time travel were in any way possible, Robert Zemeckis would've already zipped back to 2004 and made PRIMER himself. From my 2004 AICN review: "It’s the inelegant, mechanical opening of a garage door that serves as an appropriate raising of the curtain on the no-budget miracle, PRIMER, a $7,000 garage-band go at hard science-fiction that packs more mindblowing ideas into its fleet seventy-eight minutes than was likely discussed, to flog the genre’s most recent imagination-starved whipping boy, throughout the entire development and physical production of Fox’s recent $120 million dumb-down of Isaac Asimov’s I, ROBOT. And if you have any desire to keep pace with the film’s characters and the pivotal early goings-on in their ersatz lab, you’d better be paying close attention, because writer-director Shane Carruth steadfastly refuses to spoon-feed the dizzying theoretical concepts being tossed about by his brainy characters as they struggle first to invent, then to figure out what in the hell they’ve actually invented. It’s a daring conceit – one that will surely alienate more passive audience members – and the script’s barrage of information will likely necessitate at least one repeat viewing even for those with the particularly acute antennae.
Not since MEMENTO has a film so brilliantly toyed with an audience’s temporal perception without courting its ire. As with Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, the confusion generated by PRIMER is invigorating; you want to figure it all out, and can’t wait to buy a ticket to further plumb its secrets. Though no time travel tale is ever free from basic implausibility, Carruth’s variation, couched confidently in the vernacular of hard science, is probably the most convincing ever brought to the screen. That such verisimilitude is partially the product of its bewildering narrative is hardly a detriment, because Carruth – with his bracingly economical plotting trimmed down to the essential, and abetted by a fine sense for scene transitions – wins our trust by demonstrating early on that he’s an uncommonly smart director; i.e., we’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt even when the logic gets utterly indecipherable."
13. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004, d. Edgar Wright, w. Wright and Simon Pegg)
A film on which all decent people can agree.
Jokingly sold as a "Rom-Zom-Com" during its theatrical release, SHAUN OF THE DEAD can now take its place in the pantheon as one of the great romantic comedies, full stop. The triumph of Edgar Wright's film (written with SPACED co-creator Simon Pegg) is that it isn't dating. Though loaded with pop culture references, even those jokes are character-based: e.g. the scene in which Shaun and Ed deliberate over the individual quality of Shaun's LPs before flinging them at a slow-approaching zombie is funny because they're being so stupidly precious at a moment of life-or-death; that you might've owned Prince's BATMAN soundtrack simply allows the gag to work on another level (though no one should be ashamed of having that uneven, but far-from-dreadful album still in their collection). At its core, SHAUN OF THE DEAD is really just a bittersweet comedy about a man awkwardly transitioning from bachelorhood to that thing where people try to live together and have sex occasionally - with zombies representing the flesh-eating pressures of the outside world. Romero would beis proud.
Another ten years down the road, I think we'll be referring to SHAUN OF THE DEAD as one of the most beloved films of our time - if it isn't there already.
12. ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004, d. Adam McKay, w. McKay and Will Ferrell)
A return to the anarchic glory of NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE and CADDYSHACK - and just as quotable, too. Many hilarious films have reunited chunks of this cast and crew (as have several dreadfully unfunny films), but Adam McKay and company got it blissfully right with ANCHORMAN - and this why I hope they never, ever make a sequel. CADDYSHACK II exists for a reason, people.
Explaining the lunacy of ANCHORMAN (or any joke for that matter) is to kill the thing. So rather than run through the film's litany of now-classic scenes, let's leave it at this: if you love ANCHORMAN, you know why it's here; if you don't, I'm sure there's a YES, DEAR rerun on somewhere.
11. STATE AND MAIN (2000, w. & d. David Mamet)
Go you Huskies! David Mamet takes a second shot at show-biz (after SPEED-THE-PLOW), and knocks the entire industry flat on its deluded ass. This was Mamet at the end of a hot streak (following THE SPANISH PRISONER and THE WINSLOW BOY), and he outdid himself in every conceivable manner with this Hollywood-comes-to-the-sticks satire about the making of THE OLD MILL. It's cliche (and usually incorrect) to say that a modern film's dialogue has the wit and zip of classic screwball comedies, but STATE AND MAIN really does. It's every bit as quotable as ANCHORMAN, but precision-crafted in the best Mamet tradition, which is why it ranks a spot ahead of the funniest movie of the decade. (The payoff in the final shot drew audience applause the likes of which I hadn't heard since The Old Man fired Ronny Cox.)
10. YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000, w. & d. Kenneth Longergan)
The character-driven indie drama that redeemed decades of sloppy, uninspired and sometimes just plain stupid character-driven indie dramas. A peripatetic young man (Mark Ruffalo) pays a visit to his unconditionally loving sister (Laura Linney), who's divorced with a child and still living in the town where they grew up. Neither sibling has completely recovered from the shock of losing their parents at a young age, and the trauma has misshapen them in different ways: Ruffalo has skipped from town to town working odd-jobs and running afoul of the law (and knocking up his very young girlfriend), while Linney, despite landing a steady job at a local bank, has repeatedly made poor choices in men. Most indie filmmakers mistake eccentricity for nuance, but not Lonergan; he's an astute observer of human behavior - and a very witty fella when the situation calls for it (including his cameo as a local minister). This isn't a movie about slaying one's inner demons or finding spiritual peace. It's about knowing where the port in the storm is, and understanding that it's there for you no matter how enormously you fuck up.
9. AFTERSCHOOL (2008, w. & d. Antonio Campos)
By the time I caught up with this debut feature from Antonio Campos, the twenty-four-year-old filmmaker's style was already being compared to Gus Van Sant, Frederick Wiseman and Stanley Kubrick. Curiously, some of these comparisons were negative. Was Campos harnessing the techniques of these great directors, or was he just ripping them off? Even if the latter was true, here's my problem with that charge: to effectively "rip off" a master like Wiseman or Van Sant, you have to be one hell of a technician in your own right. More than that, though, you have to be attuned to the hidden lyricism of life; you have to know what alienation or sorrow or regret - or the disconcerting absence of it all - feels like. Ideas can be plagiarized, but it's pretty damn impossible to pilfer whole aesthetics. This isn't like cheating on a term paper.
So I don't understand, and am somewhat appalled by, the dismissal of Campos's AFTERSCHOOL, a stunningly-assured first film that, yes, does evince some technical swagger, but never to an overwhelmingly self-satisfied extent. Set at a boarding school somewhere on the East Coast, the film uses the accidental, caught-on-camera overdose of two popular girls (twin sisters, actually) as a jumping off point to get at the desensitization induced by the advent of streaming media. (There was a time when you had to know someone in television news to see the infamous Budd Dwyer "resignation"; now, it, and a thousand other sickening deaths, are readily available.) Campos's protagonist, a socially-awkward loner who spends most of his time watching extreme pornography and the like on YouTube, gets corralled into assembling the video "tribute" to the twins (as he was the last to see them alive), and proves a poor study in empathy. But this is true of most of his classmates - many of whom are medicated into placidity thanks to the school psychiatrist.
There's a chance AFTERSCHOOL is actually better than this ranking, but there's also a chance that Campos states his theme so emphatically that repeat viewings may be less rewarding. Regardless, the craft, the many beautifully composed shots (this kid knows exactly where to place a camera and how long he can milk a take without calling attention to himself), and Campos's eloquence on a subject that has a tendency to invite finger-wagging will endure. And what a relief to see a young filmmaker who doesn't shoot for the edit.
8. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007, w. & d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
From my Best of 2007 list for CHUD: "Undeniable. Up until THERE WILL BE BLOOD, it was still possible to downgrade Paul Thomas Anderson as a master technician hampered by a dearth of life experience. Now, he is a giant - which is appropriate in that he's reconfigured George Stevens's big-hearted GIANT as a misanthropic commentary on the attainment of the American Dream. Clearly, Anderson's toned down his referential aesthetic, but he's still paying homage to the classic westerns by subverting certain iconic images (e.g. the gusher from GIANT, Henry Fonda's chair-lean from MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and the boom up over the station house from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST - though Anderson, ever seeking to burrow, takes us through the structure). What he's saying about the capitalistic, gettin' over mentality that's made America the most powerful country in the world is far more straightforward than you might think (even with the bugfuck Kubrick-ian final chapter), but it's refreshing to find Anderson pouncing on a theme and driving it home until he strikes the mother lode."
7. YI YI (2000, w. and d. Edward Yang)
From my 2006 review for Collider: "The fullness of Edward Yang’s YI YI (A ONE AND A TWO...), the completeness with which it depicts, through one extended family unit, the discontentment and malaise of middle age, the wide-eyed yearning of adolescence and the oblivious joy of early childhood is nothing less than miraculous. It’s so honest, and, yet, so enveloping in a relatively conventional manner that it’s a shock the movie never caught on with American audiences outside of the major media centers of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Though Yang’s previous work has – and, sadly, we can still use the present tense since he has yet to complete a follow-up to this six-year-old masterpiece – drawn comparisons to the stately work of Yasujiro Ozu, it’s got just as much in common with the sprawling family dramas of James L. Brooks; in fact, Yang occasionally evinces a gag writer’s timing, particularly when setting up bits involving young shutterbug Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). (The score, by Kaili Peng, is also as winsome as those by Michael Gore and Bill Conti.) Yang may be far more patient than most American directors, but he’s hardly as contemplative as his Taiwanese film industry comrades Tsai Ming-liang (brilliant) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (puzzling, possibly talented), which is why it’s strange that a more substantial distributor than the now-defunct WinStar couldn’t be bothered to give the massively accessible Yi Yi a wider rollout.
I hate to capsulize YI YI, because, after two viewings, I feel I’ve only begun to appreciate the precise construction of Yang’s triumph (which, by the way, is the only of the director’s seven features available on DVD in America). When something as innocent and offhandedly staged as a sequence in which gaggle of bullying little girls flick the back of Yang-Yang’s head as they pose for a wedding day picture figures prominently in setting up the film’s emotionally overwhelming payoff (itself a bit of a blindside), you know you’re in the hands of a master. For nearly three hours, Yang doesn’t waste a shot, a gesture, or a line of dialogue, and the number of directors capable of such exactitude don’t far exceed the sum total of the film’s title."
Edward Yang passed away on June 29th, 2007. YI YI was his final film.
6. THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001 - 2003, d. Peter Jackson, w. Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens)
The most culturally significant fantasy film since STAR WARS. There were doubts as to whether Peter Jackson could sell the general public on a three-part epic concerning the heroic journey of a Hobbit named Frodo, but he streamlined J.R.R. Tolkien's minutiae-laden narrative and, with the help of the geniuses at WETA (as well as the variable geography of New Zealand), created Middle Earth. The results were profitable. The movie's pretty good, too.
And it's aging fine. I know this because whenever I run across any of the three installments on cable, I find myself sucked right in as if it were THE GODFATHER. Yes, the movies are huge and sprawling and, at times, a little messy, but so are Tolkien's books. Obviously, they work better in Extended Edition form (where secondary characters like Faramir are fleshed out - and I'd vote for THE TWO TOWERS as the best of the EEs), but they're plenty captivating in their "truncated" three-hour form, too. Credit Jackson for loving the material enough to know what had to go (remember when people were up in arms over the omitting of Tom Bombadil?), and what needed to be embellished. Imagine if he'd taken the Miramax deal for two films?
5. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007, w. & d. Joel and Ethan Coen)
From my Best of 2007 list for CHUD: "Nothing man-made is perfect, which is why I'll be re-watching No Country for Old Men several times over the next few months just to confirm what I've always kinda believed: Joel & Ethan Coen are not "men". Though they appeared mortal over the last few years with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, that was obviously just a feint; these fuckers are operating on an elevated plane that isn't simply isn't accessible to the strictly flesh-and-blood. Scenes and motifs from previous films (most notably Raising Arizona and Fargo) are revisited in this pitch black comedy adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, but the echoes are hardly reassuring. What kind of world is this to live in? Is there purpose in moving through it morally? And who's to say we haven't all been visited by Anton Chigurh already, metaphorically speaking? Everything adds up in the Coens' finest work to date, and, spiritually, the sum is nothing worth celebrating."
4. 25TH HOUR (2002, d. Spike Lee, w. David Benioff)
From my Best of 2002 list for AICN: "From the ugly sounds of a dog being beaten to death over the Touchstone Films emblem, through the brazen opening credits placed against the spotlight memorial to the World Trade Center, I was hooked. Spike Lee’s films have always throbbed with the insistent pulse of New York City, but, by acknowledging the undeniable scarring of not only the city’s physiognomy, but its psyche as well, an unsettling arrhythmia has set in. That unease finds a perfect accompaniment in Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a once-successful drug dealer trying to fit way too much activity into his last day of freedom before going to jail for seven years. His world, like the city in which he’s lived all his life, has been rocked to the core. Now is the time for him to put his house in order, but there’s a sense of dread hanging over his actions; an uneasy finality pervading his every move. In other words, Monty has a feeling that he may never be coming home again.
As a New Yorker, and a man who’s never shied away from controversy, no one should be surprised that Lee has chosen to place 9/11 front and center in his first post-tragedy work, but I bet many will be absolutely shocked that his take is so unabashedly compassionate. And contrary to some critics’ complaints, it is absolutely germane to the story being told. Lee’s after bigger game than some pat crime-and-punishment parable; he’s speaking to that part of every person who felt, for one terrible moment, like a New Yorker on that early-September day in 2001. He’s evoking that feeling of wanting to turn back the clock, to run some place safe, to do anything other than face an uncertain future. But in heading down that uncharted path, he’s also reminding us that, no matter how different we are, no matter how much we may hate each other at one time or another (masterfully encapsulated in the picture’s much-buzzed-about mirror sequence), we’re all in this fucking thing together. And, deep down, when the worst occurs, we’ll all be there for each other because, as Brian Cox says, “you’re a New Yorker”.
3. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000, w. & d. Wong Kar-wai)
"Mood" is everything with Wong Kar-wai, and he's never made a more rapturously romantic film than this. No one has. Shot and designed like a Sirk-ian melodrama, Wong effortlessly captures the longing and regret of a love affair briefly indulged and forever mourned. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung star as two married people who fall into each other's orbit at the exact moment they realize their spouses are having an affair. Over dinner and lots of Nat King Cole (the key to many a successful seduction), something begins to develop. Soon, it's an affair. But how it's pursued and where it ends is, again, secondary to the mood. Reflecting what would've been appropriate for a 1960s movie, Wong avoids the tired gymnastics of hot-and-heavy movie sex and gives us a furtive glances and cautious banter. He also gives us Cheung in high-necked dresses, which makes me wish I could've been Olivier Assayas a decade ago. I've said nothing about Christopher Doyle's cinematography because superlatives are insufficient.
2. MEMENTO (2000, w. & d. Christopher Nolan)
The best screenplay of the decade, and an exemplary piece of neo-noir that announced the arrival of a master filmmaker. And it almost went without a U.S. theatrical release because, no joke, distributors didn't understand it, and didn't think you would either.
The silly knock against MEMENTO is that it's a gimmick film like THE SIXTH SENSE, and that, once you know the nasty little punch line, there's no reason to go back. Not so. First, the memory-loss device is no more a gimmick than the poison in D.O.A.; it's actually a novel (if medically-nonspecific) twist that sharpens the viewer's attention rather than lulling them into passivity with some ho-hum revenge horseshit. Second, like any other well-wrought screenplay (e.g. DOUBLE INDEMNITY) repeat viewings are rewarded because it's fun to see how perfection is achieved. At least it is for me.
When MEMENTO finally made it to theaters, it was the culmination of an indie film fetish for non-linear narratives that probably kicked off with PULP FICTION and EXOTICA. This was Christopher Nolan's way of throwing down the gauntlet and saying, "Top this!" To date, no one has - including him.
1. IRREVERSIBLE (2002, w. & d. Gaspar Noe)
The way I felt walking out of this movie the first time is pretty much the way I feel heading into 2010: appalled, furious and just not a huge fan of the human race. All that's missing is the guilty sense of exhilaration.
Gaspar Noe's follow-up to the equally challenging I STAND ALONE hit U.S. theaters the week before we invaded Iraq, and it felt perfectly suited to the grim mood of the nation at the time. Here was a film in which hastily-sought revenge results in several deeply unsatisfying acts of violence - the final one punctuated with a man's skull being smashed flat by a fire extinguisher. Okay, deeply unsatisfying for non-animals. But if you enjoyed that, not to worry! A couple of scenes later, Noe shows you, in excruciating, thrust-for-thrust detail, the reason for all that retribution. And if you don't know what I'm referring to, just Google "Irreversible", and streaming video of this sickening sequence should be readily available (thus reinforcing why AFTERSCHOOL placed so highly on my list).
And that's all in the first thirty minutes or so.
From there, Noe calms things down and walks us back in time through a party, a provocative subway conversation, post-coital preparations for said party, a portentous moment in a local park, and, finally, what appears to be the creation of the universe (or, if you're epileptic, a huge fucking seizure). And if you think Noe is trying to impart some saintly Stanley Kramer bullshit about the futility of revenge, forget it: in IRREVERSIBLE, the whole shebang is predetermined because "time destroys everything".
Do I subscribe to this theory? I try not to. Philosophically, I do my best to maintain an inner dialogue akin to the one dramatized in I HEART HUCKABEES (Number Seventy-Seven). But when you watch helplessly as half of the country voluntarily swallows lies and marches merrily off to war because they'd like to feel as though we did something in response to a savage act that claimed the lives of over 2,000 innocent civilians (Deep Breath)... an impeccably-crafted film like IRREVERSIBLE sort of confirms your worst notions about humanity.
I went back to see IRREVERSIBLE two more times that weekend. It just felt like the movie of the moment. It still does. Ergo, it's Number One.
As promised, the Just Missed List (in no particular order):
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
In the Loop
I'm Not There
The Devil Wears Prada
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
A Scanner Darkly
Bad Boys II
Down with Love
All the Real Girls
Catch Me If You Can
Lovely and Amazing
The Son's Room
Pootie Tang in Sine Your Pitty on the Runny Kine
Mission to Mars
Finally, the list from 1 - 100 without my yappin':
3. In the Mood for Love
4. 25th Hour
5. No Country for Old Men
6. The Lord of the Rings
7. Yi Yi
8. There Will Be Blood
10. You Can Count on Me
11. State and Main
13. Shaun of the Dead
15. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
16. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
17. The New World
19. What Time Is It There?
20. Spirited Away
21. Songs from the Second Floor
22. Femme Fatale
23. Monsters, Inc.
24. The Man Who Wasn't There
25. A History of Violence
26. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
27. Everyone Else
28. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
29. Bad Santa (January 2003 Pasadena Test Screening Cut)
31. Fantastic Mr. Fox
33. Dave Chappelle's Block Party
34. Kill Bill
35. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
37. Pan's Labyrinth
38. City of God
39. Goodby Dragon Inn
40. Ghost World
41. Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut
42. The Incredibles
43. Jackass: The Movie
45. Black Hawk Down
46. Memories of Murder
47. Inglourious Basterds
48. Spider-Man 2
49. Red Lights
50. Before Sunset
51. Mulholland Dr.
52. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
53. Into the Wild
54. The Pianist
57. Burn After Reading
60. The Host
62. Time Out
64. Time of the Wolf
65. Lake of Fire
66. The Constant Gardener
67. Where the Wild Things Are
70. Brokeback Mountain
71. The Holy Girl
72. United 93
73. The Fountain
74. American Splendor
75. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
76. Miami Vice
77. I Heart Huckabees
78. Nowhere to Hide
80. Late Marriage
81. Drag Me to Hell
83. Code Unknown
85. Observe and Report
86. The Wayward Cloud
87. Friday Night Lights
88. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
90. Last Days
91. Y Tu Mama Tambien
92. Gone Baby Gone
93. The Squid and the Whale
94. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
95. Raising Victor Vargas
96. The Piano Teacher
97. Wet Hot American Summer
99. The Ice Harvest
100. Bring It On
Thank you for reading and debating. The feedback has been incredible. For the record, I still haven't seen AVATAR, but SHERLOCK HOLMES was good enough that I considered placing it on the Just Missed list. Too soon to tell, though.